Scandinavian Working Papers in Economics

Lund Papers in Economic History,
Lund University, Department of Economic History

No 161: The Wealth of the Richest: Inequality and the Nobility in Sweden, 1750–1900

Erik Bengtsson (), Anna Missiaia , Mats Olsson and Patrick Svensson
Additional contact information
Erik Bengtsson: Department of Economic History, Lund University, Postal: Department of Economic History, Lund University, Box 7083, S-220 07 Lund, Sweden
Anna Missiaia: Department of Economic History, Lund University, Postal: Department of Economic History, Lund University, Box 7083, S-220 07 Lund, Sweden
Mats Olsson: Department of Economic History, Lund University, Postal: Department of Economic History, Lund University, Box 7083, S-220 07 Lund, Sweden
Patrick Svensson: Department of Economic History, Lund University, Postal: Department of Economic History, Lund University, Box 7083, S-220 07 Lund, Sweden

Abstract: The role of the European nobility and their ability to retain their political and economic power are part of the debate on the modernization of the European economy. This paper contributes to the literature by exploring the wealth of the Swedish nobility as Sweden evolved from an agrarian to an industrial economy. We use a sample of 200+ probate inventories of nobles for each of the benchmark years 1750, 1800, 1850 and 1900. Medieval and early modern Sweden often has been described as not fully feudal. In line with this, and the (perceived) comparative strength of the peasantry, the nobility is assumed to have been comparatively unimportant and less economically dominant than elsewhere in Europe. We show that the nobility, less than 0.5 per cent of the population, was very dominant in 1750: the average noble was 60 times richer than the average person, and the nobles held 29 per cent of private wealth while 90 per cent of the nobles were richer than the average person. In 1900 the nobles’ advantage had decreased but the stratification within the nobility had increased dramatically. There was a group of super-rich nobles, often large land owners from the high nobility, who possessed the biggest fortunes in Sweden. But there was also a large minority who were not richer than the average Swede. The overall wealth advantage of the nobles, however, hints at that while not all nobles were economically upper class in 1900, most of the upper class were nobles.

Keywords: inequality; wealth; Sweden; nobility; economic stratification; social groups

JEL-codes: N33

28 pages, May 31, 2017

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